General V. Godlike

Since the beginning of this course, I have been extremely intrigued with the way American views in regards to the Civil War differ from place to place.  The heroic efforts of those fighting for both flags should not ever be forgotten.  That being said, I find it very fascinating how both the novels and the films continue to depict individual characters throughout the war.  This is especially true in both the novel The Killer Angels and the film Gettysburg.

The parts I found to be most interesting included the ways the novel and the film portray the leaders of both the North and South.  Of particular interest to me is how the novel and film portray General Lee as this GODLIKE figure despite his errors at Gettysburg.  On that same note much of the class argued that the film “humanizes” the characters in the story. My views differ whereas I argue that the characters, or leaders of the story are portrayed as more than human.  One quote that stands out to me from both the film and the novel comes from Colonel Chamberlain when he corrects his Lieutenant (his younger brother) for calling him by his first name.  When the Lieutenant makes the claim that General Meade “has his son as his adjutant.” Colonel Chamberlain responds by saying, “That’s different.  Generals can do anything. Nothing quite so much like God on earth as a general on the battlefield.”[1]

On a similar note, the story goes above and beyond to make General Lee this GODLIKE figure with the power to inspire his men despite the overwhelming odds opposing him.  Again the part that stands out the most to me is after the second days battle when Lee is riding his horse among the ranks of his men as they cheer and salute him.  Many reach out to touch his hand as though he was something more than a General.  This takes place after their second defeat in the battle itself and yet the spirits of the soldiers remain high.

On the other side of the battle, the Union soldiers view their leader (General Meade) as his predecessors as “idiots not fit to lead a Johnny Detail.”[2]  Of course this quote comes from a man who is questioning the efforts of the officers, especially because of the fact that he and his men are considered “mutineers.”  Nevertheless, it is strikingly odd that the soldiers of the Confederacy, despite the outcome view their leader as GODLIKE whereas the Union soldiers are the exact opposite still considering the outcome.


[1] Michael Sharra, The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War (New York: The Modern Library, 1974), 25.

[2] Sharra, 23.

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7 comments
  1. Sorry folks… not sure why it posted the way it did.

  2. I agree with you; Lee is their God and personalities fall fatal to their readers. I don’t think that any man, regardless of stature, could ever measure up to the way they were portrayed as if they weren’t there any longer. There is an ambiance of manhood that is at stake. But, the characters are real. The real mystery for me is…does fiction tell the tale of reality? How is fiction relevant to the study of history?

  3. chrisrivera1985 said:

    Well said, Mario. I really think there could have been more said about Meade. I mean, he’s not my most favorite hero in American history, but this man really did a heck of a job at the Battle of Gettysburg. Now, Tim knows a heck of a lot more on this than I do and is the go to guy, but I thought Sharra dropped the ball badly on Daniel Sickles. As controversial as he was, and as much as some might disagree, I think that Sickles actions that day really did help the Union win the battle. But in the book he’s hardly mentioned Sickles. And one of the lines that really got under my skin was on page 25 talking about men that Meade surrounded himself with like the “wild Dan Sickles”. It is just so odd to me that Sharra does that right there because in the moment of battle who the heck thinks about the “angelic staff” (25) of Meade? And the last thing that I have to point out about Meade that Sharra writes that aggravating to me (I guess he is one of my most favorite heroes in American history) is on page 290 when discussing Meade not pursuing Lee of which Chamberlain, according to Sharra, didn’t like the idea of retreating and “was aghast” at the decision. Give me a break. 50,000 dead after three days of hard fighting and thwarting an attempt at invading the North….Meade deserves a lot more respect than given by Sharra.

  4. charlesanselmo said:

    I generally agree with your observations about Lee. In class we also discussed the numerous different commanders that the Union army had. The ineptness of the Union commanders lead to a seeming “revolving door” policy at their command position. This surely would have an effect on the officers below them. Whereas Lee was revered as a General throughout the war and remains so today. That is why the attitudes of the common soldiers are depicted as they are in the novel.

  5. 10ectim said:

    General Lee had become the “hope of the Confederacy” by the time of the battle at Gettysburg. The North has almost taken the Mississippi River (Vicksburg surrenders the day after Gettysburg) and the blockade is beginning to strangle the southern economy. The hope that England will enter the war has pretty much disappeared. The only bright spot has been Lee’s militery victories. He stopped the Union invasion of Virginia at Fredericksburg and then outmaneuvered and drove the Union army north at Chancellorsville. Now he lead the Confederate army north in an attempt to deliver a knock-out blow that may increase the northern peace effort to call for an end of hostilities. The Army of Northern Virginia have great faith in Lee and Lee has great faith in them. That may have been his downfall at Gettysburg.
    Dan Sickles was an interesting figure. He had been tried for murder after he killed a man when he was caught in a “compromising position” with the man’s wife. (I think that’s true; not sure of the details). He was found “not guilty” but he still had quite the reputation. During the second day at Gettysburg, Sickle moved his troops off of Little Round Top and left it open for southern occupation and opened a gap in the Union line that was almost breached. There was a race to the top of Little Round Top that the Union barely won. If the South had taken LRT they could have easily turned the Southern flank of the Union army and forced them to retreat.
    General Meade is also an interesting commander. He seemed to posses a pretty good strategic mind and eye. However from what I have read, his personality did not inspire confidence and inspiration of his officers or men. He was nicknamed the “Snapper Turtle” (maybe because of the way he looked or because he had a tendency to snap at people, or both). He actually had his staff vote on if they should stay at Gettysburg or not. (I think that happened the after the first day). He could have just been creating agreement among his generals or he could have been insecure. I have read historians that have held opposing views. The criticism does seem harsh about his not pursuing Lee aggressively but this reaction is understandable after previous northern generals allowed Lee to withdraw before. (McClellan after Antietam) But one would wonder what Lee would have done if the positions had been switched. It seems that he would have seized the opportunity to destroy the Union army. Lee was very aggressive.

  6. Good point. When you read any Civil War literature, Lee seems to forever be on a pedestal, and I mean literally. Although, both Lee and Grant are showcased in American History, for the most part “General Robert E. Lee” seems to always in the forefront. After reading about the Confederate movement (concerning the works of the UDC and SVC) and learning about their activism to commemorate their wartime heroes as vindication for the Lost Cause, I was stunned to discover the passionate extremes they went through to reinterpret Civil War history; such as erecting memorials everywhere and infiltrating the public schools with their message. In essence, I am not surprised how Lee is idolized or reverenced as a ‘godlike figure’ by southerners even to this day.

  7. drobnicker said:

    I agree, Lee was portrayed by the South populace as a god-like figure. However, at the beginning of Shaara’s book he describes him as tired and old -ooking in a blue robe, seemed he was trying to give his image more of a human touch. I believe the South needed a hero and the persona of Lee fit the bill. His ethereal presence – white hair, wise face, tall in the saddle emitted a god-like essence that myths are made from. I can’t help but think of another southern boy who is referred to as “the King”. Once again the image of Elvis refuses to die as well. Graceland has become a shrine that people take pilgramges to see. Talk about a lost cause.

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